Origins of 30 scientific concepts you learned in school
From the ancient world to the cutting edge, our scientific knowledge has emerged gradually over thousands of years. At each stage, hardworking and curious individuals applied their knowledge of the world to push the public imagination even one step forward. And while it’s true that there have been many hundreds of scientific revolutionaries over human history, just a handful have become household names. These famous creators and experimenters show up in science classes beginning with our first lesson about rainbows or gravity.
Stacker consulted a variety of science communication sources such as PBS, Live Science, and Nature's Scitable blog to compile a list of 30 scientific concepts that students learn across America and explain how each concept was discovered. No such list can be exhaustive, but this one is packed with legends and luminaries. These scientists let their ideas about the nature of the world guide their lives. Some, like Nicolaus Copernicus or Charles Darwin, developed new ideas that changed the way people perceived the world and its purpose.
Scientific discovery doesn’t happen in a vacuum—one challenge in making a list like this is that even the most intrepid scientist isn’t working totally alone. In some cases, we’ve credited multiple people, and even that may not be enough. But any successful scientist knows they’re one part of a system of inquiry and experimentation that’s continued for thousands of years.
Sometimes our knowledge of who invented or discovered something is based on whatever records have survived—we can never be sure. But if it takes a village to raise a child, it certainly takes a village to raise a scientific concept. Many of the discoveries on this list come directly from previous items, like germ theory leading to the polio vaccine or universal gravity resulting in the discovery of general relativity.
Read on to discover the stories behind 30 famous scientific concepts that students learn in school.
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Tides caused by the moon
- Discovered by: Seleucus of Seleucia, c. 150 B.C.
Seleucus of Seleucia was a Babylonian astronomer whose life was described by the biographer Plutarch. According to Plutarch, Seleucus was the first to reason out the idea that the sun was the center of the universe. History of Science reports that Seleucus’ finding that the moon causes Earth’s tides was likely related to his examination of the sun.
- Discovered by: Shen Kuo in 1088
The Song dynasty statesman Shen Kuo was the first to decide that true north was different from the magnetic compass north. Shanghai Daily says Shen Kuo studied nature extensively and drew hundreds of sketches before he made this declaration. Along with true north, Shen Kuo was purportedly the first to identify a UFO.
- Discovered by: Theodoric of Freiberg, c. 1310
Although Shen Kuo was reported to have described the rainbow first, it’s Theodoric of Freiberg whose claim survives. History of Science says that Theodoric’s nonscientific education and Dominican monkhood may have overshadowed his devoted interest in the sciences. He understood how rainbows worked, even though he couldn’t formally prove or confirm his understanding.
- Discovered by: Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543
Plutarch claimed that Seleucus of Seleucia was the first to guess the sun was the center of our solar system. Instead, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says it was Nicolaus Copernicus. He found the truth as a consequence of his other studies: They just wouldn’t work without the added fact that everything revolved around the sun. By developing and publishing this radical idea, Copernicus helped induce the scientific revolution.
Law of falling bodies
- Discovered by: Galileo in 1638
“What falls faster, a pound of feathers or a pound of lead?” Before Galileo theorized and proved the law of falling bodies, people genuinely believed heavier objects fell faster. According to Nova, Galileo studied falling objects in motion and used ramps to slow their falls so he could observe them.
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Boyle's gas law
- Discovered by: Robert Boyle in 1662
Irish-born scientist Robert Boyle was the first to discover that the volume of gas goes down as the pressure on that gas goes up and vice versa. He worked with a colleague to build a pneumatic air pump, which they used to prove this and other findings during their careers. They also discovered facts about combustion and sound transmission over the air.
- Discovered by: Robert Hooke in 1665
The microscope, invented in the 1500s but refined throughout the 1600s, let scientists look at materials at up to 270 times by 1665. That year, Robert Hooke looked at a sample from a cork tree and saw the dead remnants of the cellulose cell wall. He formulated the idea that living things were made of tiny units called cells.
- Discovered by: Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in 1675
Robert Hooke discovered the cell and wrote an influential book called "Micrographia.” Inspired by Hooke, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek built his own microscope and got to work. Where Hooke discovered that “solid” living things were made of cells, van Leeuwenhoek identified living things made of just one cell: bacteria. What he lacked in scientific education, he made up in determination and, frankly, lens-grinding skill.
Law of universal gravitation
- Discovered by: Isaac Newton in 1687
The apple drop heard round the world dropped from a tree onto Sir Isaac Newton, who realized that something about the Earth was pulling the apple toward it. He compared this thought to his understanding of how the moon relates to Earth and realized relative size helped to determine gravity. Then he used proof by induction to reason through the law of universal gravity.
- Discovered by: Carl Linnaeus, c. 1735
Carl Linnaeus trained as a doctor in Sweden and the Netherlands, and during his extensive education, he made a system for classifying plants. Over time, he developed this into the modern idea of taxonomy, and he began the “binomial” naming tradition of species. He even theorized, radically, that some new plant species could have emerged after God created the world—strictly by hybrid breeding.
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